MIGHTY tome that it is – hardly hand luggage – I have been kicking myself that I did not buy Birgit Nilsson 100 – An Homage when I was in Austria with the RSNO’s recent European tour. Published by Viennese art-book house Verlag fur moderne Kunst, it is a sumptuous volume for which the term “coffee table book” is woefully inadequate. Something sturdy by Charles Rennie Mackintosh might be required to rest it upon, as it weighs in at five and a half kilos. It was priced in Euros there, while it will set you back £100 here, assuming you grab one of the limited edition.

One hundred of anything may seem a lot for a book, but this is some book, as befits some lady. The Swedish singer would have been 100 years old last month (she died on Christmas Day in 2005) and she was the definitive Wagner soprano of her time, who rose from humble beginnings on a rural farm to become the toast of Bayreuth, La Scala and the Met. The book, edited by Rutbert Reisch, who is President of the foundation that bears her name, boasts a list of contributors that is a Who’s Who of opera, music and journalism as well as a huge number of photographs, facsimile scores, newspaper cuttings and a reproduction of the 500 Kroner banknote issued in her honour.

In an industry that thrives on anniversaries, it might seem surprising that Nilsson’s centenary has not been more widely marked, but such is the lot of performers as distinct from composers. The latter get the legacy plaudits, but the former often reap greater rewards during the lifetimes. It is a feature of the opera world that great singers maintain a loyal fanbase long after their deaths (hence the cults of Caruso and Callas), so for many there will never be a better Brunnhilde or Isolde than Nilsson. Although she was not known for diva-like behaviour, her life-story comes garlanded with many an anecdote of her quick wit and sharp tongue, many of those being about her shrewd ways with money. One of the best known has her asked, in relation to the payment of her taxes, whether she has any dependents. “Just Rudolph Bing,” she is said to have replied, citing the director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and former founder of the Edinburgh Festival.

The Birgit Nilsson Foundation remains, as a result of the substantial fees she insisted on receiving, a wealthy institution, which awards the richest prize in music. There have so far been just four winners of the $1m Birgit Nilsson Prize for outstanding achievement in opera and concert: singer Placido Domingo, conductor Riccardo Muti, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and, in this centenary year, soprano Nina Stemme. All three of the individual winners are contributors to the centenary book.

In Scotland we were especially fortunate to hear Stemme up close at Glasgow City Halls when conductor Donald Runnicles made concert performances of Wagner part of his BBC SSO season at the start of this decade, and she will be the most appropriate recipient of the award yet when she is given it by the Swedish king in October. Also Swedish, and mentored by Nilsson on her way to becoming the pre-eminent Wagner soprano of her own generation, her schedule is a living reflection of Nilsson’s career. At the end of this month she sings in Parsifal in Munich, with Wagner’s Ring there and in London to follow and a then a new Robert Wilson staging of Puccini’s Turandot in Madrid to round off her year.

Venerating the work of the great performers of the past is all very well, but, on reflection, Birgit Nilsson would surely advise putting that £100 towards seeing Nina Stemme maintain her legacy in the here and now.